Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nobel's Notables 2010

I intend to leave after my death a large fund for the promotion of the peace idea,
but I am skeptical as to its results.
—Alfred Nobel  [1833-96], Swedish chemist & inventor

You have enemies? Good.
That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.

—Winston Churchill [1874-1965], wartime British prime minister & writer 

Here is a list of this year's winners, with a brief description of their work and the basis for the award. (The prizes will be handed out on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who founded the prizes.)

Peace: Mr. Liu Xiaobo of China, jailed dissident and  former literature professor. In " A Nobel Peace Prize to Celebrate," the Financial Times editorial says:
With its decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has reinserted itself into the best traditions of the award.

In its greatest moments, the peace prize has given heart to and roused support for individuals struggling against the overwhelming force of an oppressive state or an unjust social order: Carl von Ossietzky, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi in the former case; Martin Luther King in the latter.
For his role in the Charter, Mr Liu is languishing in a Chinese jail on a conviction for inciting subversion of the state. He has done no such thing: his activities have aimed not at overthrowing the state but of making it serve its people by granting the rights that – as the prize citation usefully points out – China’s own constitution formally guarantees.
 Mr Liu deserves to be in their company. He has fought peacefully for decades to win for his fellow Chinese the basic right to think what they want, say what they think, and criticise the party apparatchiks that wield power over them. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations where many protesters were murdered by the government’s crackdown. He is a founding signatory of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for greater civil rights, modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. (The translated Charter 08 is here for your benefit.)

The Noble  Founder: Portrait of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) by Gösta Florman (1831–1900).
Source: www.imagebank.sweden.se,

Literature: Mario Vargas Llosa. As The Los Angeles Times says in the article, Mario Vargas Llosa: Reaction in Latin America turns on Nobel winner's political views:
The Nobel Prize in literature, awarded once a year to an author for literary output in any language, is invariably viewed through a political lens, particularly in Latin America, where writers often play prominent roles as so-called public intellectuals. As news of Vargas Llosa's win spread, many writers and lit-lovers in Latin America generally felt that Vargas Llosa deserved the prize for his long trajectory and beloved novels, but attention also turned to Vargas Llosa's political views.

An almost orthodox liberal, the author supports same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of drug use. Yet he also reserves his strongest criticism in the political sphere for hard-line leftist leaders in Latin America, including President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and former President Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Vargas Llosa considers himself, above all else, an opponent of dictatorships, both left and right. Speaking on air to CNN Español after receiving the Nobel, Vargas Llosa made reference to previous authoritarian regimes in Peru, and even to the Franco regime in Spain, as targets of his political passions (link in Spanish).

"I can say in a certain way that I'm an expert in dictatorships," the author said. "Maybe that's why dictatorships appear so much in my novels, and maybe that's why I'm critical of all dictatorships, without exception."

In another CNN interview, the author was asked what he would say if he had a chance to meet Chavez or Castro in person. His response was blunt and stone-faced: "That they should leave, that they should leave the government, that they are a barrier to progress in their countries."
Medicine or Physiology: Robert Edwards of the University of Cambridge in England for pioneering in vitro fertilization, Science News  reported, "a process that overcomes many causes of infertility by creating embryos outside the body and implanting them in a prospective mother’s uterus."

The article, "2010 Nobels recognize potential of basic science to shape the world," continues to say:
Edwards began research on IVF in the 1950s and later worked with gynecologist Patrick Steptoe. In the late 1960s Edwards was the first to try human egg removal and fertilization in vitro, a Latin term meaning “in glass.”
"By a brilliant combination of basic and applied medical research, Edwards overcame one technical hurdle after another in his persistence to discover a method that would help to alleviate infertility,” the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute stated in announcing the prize.
Ultimately, Edwards’ efforts gave rise to both a medical breakthrough and a now-outdated term — test-tube baby. The first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born July 25, 1978.
Physics: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both of the University of Manchester, "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene," says The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Both studied and started their careers as physicists in Russia.

In "Nobel Prize in Physics 2010 for Graphene —Two-Dimensional Material," Science Daily reports on the significance of their work:
A thin flake of ordinary carbon, just one atom thick, lies behind this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Geim and Novoselov have shown that carbon in such a flat form has exceptional properties that originate from the remarkable world of quantum physics.
Graphene is a form of carbon. As a material it is completely new -- not only the thinnest ever but also the strongest. As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper. As a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials. It is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it. Carbon, the basis of all known life on earth, has surprised us once again.
Geim and Novoselov extracted the graphene from a piece of graphite such as is found in ordinary pencils. Using regular adhesive tape they managed to obtain a flake of carbon with a thickness of just one atom. This at a time when many believed it was impossible for such thin crystalline materials to be stable.
Chemistry: Richard F. Heck of the University of Delaware, Ei-ichi Negishi of Purdue University, both in the United States, and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, "for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis." As the statement from the Swedish Academy of Sciences explains the significance of this team's work: 
This chemical tool has vastly improved the possibilities for chemists to create sophisticated chemicals, for example carbon-based molecules as complex as those created by nature itself.
Carbon-based (organic) chemistry is the basis of life and is responsible for numerous fascinating natural phenomena: colour in flowers, snake poison and bacteria killing substances such as penicillin. Organic chemistry has allowed man to build on nature's chemistry; making use of carbon’s ability to provide a stable skeleton for functional molecules. This has given mankind new medicines and revolutionary materials such as plastics.
In order to create these complex chemicals, chemists need to be able to join carbon atoms together. However, carbon is stable and carbon atoms do not easily react with one another. The first methods used by chemists to bind carbon atoms together were therefore based upon various techniques for rendering carbon more reactive. Such methods worked when creating simple molecules, but when synthesizing more complex molecules chemists ended up with too many unwanted by-products in their test tubes.

Economic Sciences: This year's winners are Peter A. Diamond, Dale T. Mortensen and Christopher A Pissarides for their work on how the labour market operates, says the New York Times. In 3 Share Economics Prize for Labor Analysis: 
For decades, the researchers have studied what happens when a market is not made up of identical, cookie-cutter units — as is true with the job market, where all workers have different skills and weakness. In many cases, there are significant search costs to finding the ideal match between a buyer and a seller of a good, like the job to a job-seeker.
Professor Diamond, 70, a professor at M.I.T., first developed a broad theoretical framework for studying markets with search costs in 1971. Professors Mortensen, 71, of Northwestern University, and Pissarides, 62, of the London School of Economics, later applied the idea to the labor market in particular, and how government policy could improve the matching of workers to jobs.
“The Laureates’ models help us understand the ways in which unemployment, job vacancies, and wages are affected by regulation and economic policy,” according to the citation from the prize committee.
Of all the prizes, the Peace Prize awarded to Mr. Liu, human rights activist, proves the most controversial, as it ought to be. Each winner is worthy of the honour bestowed on him, and deserves the accolades for years and decades of assiduous research and accomplishment. I am sure that each will wear the honour well.

I am particularly moved about this year's recipients for the prizes in Literature and Peace, as theirs is a fight for justice, individual dignity, equality and freedom. I say to these two men, and to Mr. Liu in particular, Keep up the good fight. You are not alone.

Despite the honour, some have refused the Nobel Prizes, says Wikipedia:
Two laureates have voluntarily declined the Nobel Prize. Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Literature Prize in 1964 but refused, stating, "A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form." The other is Lê Ðức Thọ, chosen for the 1973 Peace Prize for his role in the Paris Peace Accords. He declined, claiming there was no actual peace in Vietnam.
Since 1901 the Nobel Prize has been awarded annually in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace. The prize in economic sciences was added in 1968.  Each prize consists of a medal, personal diploma, and a cash award of 10 million Swedish kroner, or about $1.5 million US dollars.
For further reading and notable facts, you can take a look at the Nobel Prize site.

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